Towards the end of August the Kingdom of Brunei will host top defense officials from the ASEAN member states and eight “plus” countries under the aegis of the Asian Defense Minister Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus). Ordinarily, on the crowded Asian-Pacific geopolitical calendar, such a gathering would not attract much attention. But that would be a mistake, for the ADMM-Plus represents what is possibly the last, and best, opportunity in the region's long quest for creating a functional security architecture. Paradoxically, the manner in which it is currently imagined runs the risk that it will be irrelevant in the near future.
The inaugural meeting of the ADMM-Plus (comprising ten ASEAN countries plus eight others: Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States) was held in 2010 in Hanoi. The meeting in Brunei is only the second time that the ADMM-Plus will convene but, indicative of its importance, henceforth it will meet every two years instead of three years as originally planned.
At the first meeting it was resolved that the ADMM-Plus would focus on five priority areas of cooperation: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), medicine, maritime security, peacekeeping and counter-terrorism. In fact, the main focus over the last few years has been on HADR and military medicine, which led, in June 2013, to a unique military exercise in Brunei involving seven ships, 15 helicopters and around 3200 personnel from 18 different countries. The fact that ships and forces from countries like Japan, China, Singapore, the U.S., Vietnam and India, among others were working together was no small feat, prompting Admiral Locklear, the Chief of the US Pacific Command, to call it a “substantial” achievement. Indeed, this highlighted the potential for ADMM-Plus to emerge as the forum where militaries of the extended region get to know each other and engage in confidence-building measures. This has been a dream, especially for the ASEAN countries that have been keen to induct extra-regional powers into the “ASEAN-way.”
If the ADMM-Plus has achieved so much in such a short time, how could it be irrelevant in the future? The problems lie in the area where progress has been most limited: maritime security. While the emphasis on non-traditional security for the first few years was completely appropriate and an important familiarization and confidence-building measure, militaries, by definition, do not train, equip and prepare primarily for these missions. Hence, despite having an Expert Working Group on maritime security, tangible progress has been scant. In fact even if such basic confidence-building measures like establishing hotlines there has been only tortured progress and no certainty that this will change anytime soon.
Part of the problem is that ASEAN does not wish to entangle itself in the numerous territorial disputes in the South China Sea and so avoids this topic altogether. While this might sound reasonable, if ADMM-Plus proves unable to provide security then, inevitably, countries will explore alternate arrangements. Hence the U.S. rebalancing has largely been welcomed and has been accompanied by a pronounced “tilt” (in varying degrees) towards the U.S. from countries like Vietnam, Myanmar and Philippines.
Meanwhile, there is talk of other groupings like the Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral or enhanced Japanese-Vietnamese ties. To be sure, the subject of maritime security is not an easy one but, among other measures, there could perhaps be deliberations on enhancing maritime domain awareness. This could begin with an exchange of information of commercial shipping and, in time, could also include naval ships. Over the long term it might also be worthwhile to explore the feasibility of establishing a joint operations room, to be manned by officers from ADMM-Plus countries, without prejudice to disputed maps. The primary advantage of this would be that it would regularize meetings and interactions between military officers, thereby increasing trust among them. Moreover, it would be advisable to task militaries specifically, lest they lose interest in repeated, resource consuming HADR-type exercises.
To emerge as an effective institution the ADMM-Plus will have to overcome two potential obstacles. First it will have to distinguish itself from the alphabet soup of organizations in the Asia-Pacific. Besides the ASEAN and the ADMM, there is the ASEAN Regional Forum (26 countries including the EU as one entity), East Asia Summit (18 countries), ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea), ASEAN Plus Six (Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (21 members). One cannot help but sympathize for those diplomats who have to deal with this on a daily basis. On the one hand, this web of linkages is a good problem to have as it builds human ties, but it also becomes harder for ADMM-Plus to establish a distinct identity.
A trickier problem is the reluctance of politicians and diplomats across the region to cede any role to the military in what they imagine are issues within their domain. Hence, foreign policy mandarins suffer from an “agency problem” and wish to closely monitor what is being done under the aegis of the ADMM-Plus. One way to overcome this is to have diplomatic observers inserted with the respective militaries.
The key reason and the driver for the ADMM-Plus has been “ASEAN centrality” and this organization must, first and foremost, serve the interests of the ASEAN region. But this requires that tough and difficult issues be discussed, or at least be flagged for discussion. There is gradually growing awareness within ASEAN that ADMM-Plus may end up as a mere “talk shop,” one which, as noted by my colleague See Seng Tan, “accomplishes precious little by way of meaningful cooperation.”
Enhancing maritime security must therefore be on the agenda of the ADMM-Plus. Not doing so will all but make it certain that the organization will gradually be bypassed and overtaken by events.
Anit Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor at Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.